Circe: The Famous Sorceress of Greek Legend
She is rarely described as a goddess though. Most people think of Circe as a sorceress, a witch, or even a temptress.
She is most famous for her role in the epic story of Odysseus. She initially seemed like a threat to the lives of his crew, but she became one of the men’s greatest benefactors.
Without Circe’s assistance, it is doubtful whether Odysseus would have survived his treacherous journey at all.
But there was a lot more to the story of Circe than how she helped Odysseus find his way after placing a spell on some of his men.
She met with other adventurers who she was less willing to help. She was a mother and a jealous woman in love.
Later generations saw her as a dangerous seductress, and many Greeks saw her spell on Odysseus’s crew as a caution against vice, but there’s a lot more to Circe than those interpretations would make you believe!
Circe is most well-known for the role she plays in the epic voyage of Odysseus.
Odysseus and his crew landed on the fictional island of Aeaea in the far west as they struggled to reach Ithaca. He sent some of men to scout the island after seeing smoke from a chimney rising up from the forest.
The men heard beautiful singing as they made their way toward the smoke. They soon found Circe’s house in a clearing in the forest.
The men were surprised by the animals that surrounded the home. Lions and wolves lounged in the grass but seemed completely docile, making no move to attack the intruders.
In fact, the wild animals rubbed up against them like pets. The men were terrified, but gathered their wits and made themselves known to the singing woman they could hear inside.
Circe greeted them warmly and invited the men inside for a meal. After months at sea they were happy to accept and did not question why she had so much to spare.
Only one remained outside. Eurylochus, Odysseus’s brother-in-law and his second in command, suspected something sinister and hid outside while his companions ate their unexpected lunch.
Eurylochus was right to be suspicious of the charming woman that had welcomed them so quickly. She served the men simple, comforting food that they did not suspect was laced with a powerful magic potion.
First she made the men forget their homes and feel totally at ease with her. Then, with a wave of her magic wand, she turned them all into pigs.
Eurylochus saw his crewmates being driven to the pigsty, weeping as they were locked inside. He ran back to the ship to tell his captain about their sorry fate.
He was terrified as he told Odysseus his tale and begged to not have to go back to Circe’s house. He was certain that if any of them approached her they would meet the same fate.
Odysseus would not agree to abandon his enchanted men, but allowed Eurolochus to remain on the ship while he took action. Odysseus went alone so as to not risk any more men, while his second in command pleaded with him to not put himself in danger.
As he traveled the path to the house, he was met by Hermes. The god offered assistance in avoiding Circe’s traps.
First, he gave Odysseus an herb called moly. It would make him immune to Circe’s charms and her poisons.
When Circe attempted to use her wand, the god told Odysseus to pull out his sword and act as though he was about to kill her. If he harmed the witch, however, he would never be able to free his men from her spell.
Instead, Circe would ask Odysseus to go to bed with her. He could not refuse as she was a goddess.
Even then there was a chance of treachery, so Hermes advised him to make her swear by the gods that she would not make any further attempt to harm him.
Odysseus did as he was instructed, and Circe was shocked that he resisted her spells. She soon realized who he was, however, as she had been told that Odysseus of Ithaca would be the only man to ever resist her magic.
She not only lifted the spell she had placed on the men, but made them better. They were younger, taller, and more handsome than they had been before falling prey to her magic.
Circe instructed Odysseus to have his ship brought to shore and show his men the way to some caves where they could stay.
The men happily stayed with Circe for a year, enjoying fine food and lodgings. Odysseus became her lover and nearly forgot his quest to return to his home and wife.
After a year had passed, his men reminded him that they needed to go home.
Circe was sad to see him leave but accepted that she would not force him to stay if he was unhappy.
Before he could sail for Ithaca, however, she told him he would need to travel to the underworld. No living man had ever done so before, but the dead seer Tiresias was the only soul who could tell him how to safely reach Ithaca.
She instructed him on the preparations he would need to make and the necromantic magic he would need to reach the land of the dead.
When Odysseus had returned from the underworld, he landed once more on Aeaea. Circe was thrilled to see him.
As the men settled in to rest, she pulled him aside and told him what other trials he would face when he left her island.
Circe told Odysseus how to sail past the Sirens without falling prey to their song and warned him about the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis.
She warned him to not kill the cattle of the sun god Helios he would find on Thrinacia as well or he would lose his ship and all his men with it, a warning his men would not take to heart when they eventually reached that island.
Odysseus left Aeaea the next morning, well-prepared for the rest of his voyage thanks to the wise counsel of the sorceress Circe.
Despite the initial danger, only one member of the crew died on Circe’s island. The youngest of the men had been sitting on the roof and, in his hurry to depart, had fallen.
Later authors expanded on the story of Circe and Odysseus, making her play an important role in his later life as well as his famous journey.
Hesiod claimed that Circe had given birth to three of Odysseus’s sons as a result of their year together. Ardea and Latinus would grow up to be founders of Italian nations, but Telgonus would play a part in his father’s story before he journeyed to Italy as well.
When Telgonus had grown, Circe told him who his father was. The young man traveled to Ithaca to meet Odysseus at last.
Tragically, when Telgonus landed at Ithaca Odysseus mistook him for a bandit. They fought and Telgonis stabbed his father with a poisoned spear.
Telgonus took his father’s body to Aeaea, accompanied by Penelope and Telemachus. With Circe they buried him and, out of respect for his family’s suffering, Circe made her lover’s wife and son immortal.
Another version of the story says that Circe did not bury Odysseus. She used her herbs to bring him back to life.
Telemachus married Circe’s daughter Cassiphone, but the marriage would end tragically. Telemachus killed Circe in a quarrel and was killed by his own wife in revenge.
When Odysseus learned of the death of his son, he committed suicide in grief.
Odysseus was not the only hero who landed on Aeaea. A later story claimed that before the Trojan War she had been visited by Jason and the Argonauts.
Jason’s new bride, Medea, was Circe’s niece. When she and Jason had left her homeland, they had killed her brother Absyrtus.
The killing haunted them. Murder, particularly of a relative, was a violation of Zeus’s sacred laws.
Circe did not know why her niece and the crew of the Argo had come to her island, but when she saw the demeanor of Medea and Jason she quickly surmised that they had been involved in a killing.
Kirke, at a loss to know why they had come, invited them to sit in polished chairs; but without a word they made for the hearth and sat down there after the manner of suppliants in distress. Medea hid her face in her hands, Iason fixed in the ground his great hilted sword with which he had killed Apsyrtos (Apsyrtus), and neither of them looked her in the face. So she knew at once that these were fugitives with murder on their hands and took the course laid down by Zeus, the god of suppliants, who heartily abhors the killing of a man, and yet as heartily befriends the killer. She set about the rites by which a ruthless slayer is absolved when he seeks asylum at the hearth. First, to atone for the unexpiated murder, she took a suckling pig from a sow with dugs still swollen after littering. Holding it over them she cut its throat and let the blood fall on their hands. Next she propitiated Zeus with other libations, calling on him as the Cleanser, who listens to a murderer’s prayers with friendly ears … in the hope that she might cause the loathsome Erinyes to relent, and that he himself might once more smile upon this pair, whether the hands they lifted up to him were stained with a kinsman’s or a strangers blood.
-Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 662 ff
When Circe had finished the rituals that would keep Zeus’s anger at bay, she asked Medea to tell her their story. She did, but omitted the death of her brother.
Circe was not fooled. She pitied her niece but could not harbor a murderer in her home without bringing the Furies down on herself as well.
She told Medea that she would not do anything against her, but she and the Argonauts would not be allowed to stay in her home. Medea’s father would be seeking revenge and Circe was sure Medea would not avoid him for long.
Medea was heartbroken, but left her aunt’s home without argument. Circe had done what she could to pacify the gods, but Medea and Jason would have to face the repercussions of their actions without her assistance.
Over time, the characterization of Circe changed from what it had been in Homer’s original work. There she had posed a threat to the men, but it was soon rectified and she was a good host.
In contrast to his later relationship with Calypso, Circe did not force Odysseus to stay with her or refuse when he wished to leave. She was welcoming and helpful as soon as she learned that she could not cast a spell on him.
Many later writers found a moral lesson in the character of Circe, however. The crew was turned to animals and waylaid for a year because of some fault.
Among the moralistic interpretations of Odysseus’s encounter with Circe were:
- Socrates claimed that the men had fallen victim to gluttony and lost self-control.
- An Italian writer of the Renaissance interpreted Circe as a prostitute, and the crewmen had sinned by letting lust control them.
- Some Greek writers pointed to the wine the men drank and their forgetfulness, painting the tale as one that cautioned against drunkenness.
What’s more, when later additions to the myth were taken into account, his affair with Circe had inadvertently caused both of their deaths as well as that of his son Telemachus. The story in its entirety, then, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of sorcery.
The character of Circe became less helpful and kind. She was depicted more and more as a type of femme fatale, a seductive witch.
The fact that Circe invited Odysseus into her bed was seen by some as proof of her immorality. Circe became a character who used her feminine wiles to get her way, in this case to both escape Odysseus’s sword and have another chance to overpower him.
Another later story about Circe did not concern a heroic sailor or a great quest. It was a much more personal story that tied her to one of the monsters she had once warned Odysseus about – Scylla.
Scylla was a terrifying sea monster with six dog heads encircling her waist. She would pick men off passing ships and eat them alive with amazing speed.
While Homer never gave an origin for Scylla, in later centuries it became popular to create stories in which the horrific monsters of older myths had once been beautiful women or nymphs.
As with many other characters, Ovid did this in his Metamorphosis. In his story, Scylla had once been a sea nymph of great beauty.
Her beauty and goodness attracted the love of the sea god Glaucus. Scylla rejected him, however, and Glaucus resorted to desperate measures.
He went to Circe for help in winning Scylla’s affections. Her knowledge of herbs and spells meant she could create a love potion that would make Scylla return his love.
Instead, Circe confessed that she had fallen in love with Glaucus herself. She begged him to abandon his unrequited love for Scylla and be with her instead.
But Glaucus was not moved by the enchantress’s declaration of love. He swore that he could never love another woman as long as Scylla was alive and he saw her beautiful face every time she bathed at the edge of the water.
Circe was furious and hurt. She loved Glaucus too much to hurt him personally, however.
Instead, she decided to take her anger out on Scylla.
Circe used her magic to poison the water at the spot where Scylla usually went swimming. It cast a deforming spell on the nymph.
Scylla transformed into a monster while she waded at the edge of the sea, but was not aware of the change at first.
When Scylla looked down and saw six monstrous dog heads around her waist, she didn’t realize that they had become a part of her own body. She believed that she was being attacked by a monster, and she fled across the water.
Every time Scylla stopped, she saw that the monster was still with her. She grew more panicked the farther she swam.
When she reached a cave in the narrow strait she realized that she was not being attacked by a monster after all. She was becoming one herself.
She stayed in that cave forever, still horrified by her monstrous transformation. The dog heads that encircled her waist reached out to eat anything that moved past them, from dolphins and seals to men on passing ships.
Circe’s cruelty had not won the heart of Glaucus, however. The god mourned for his lost love and never forgot the beauty of Scylla.
Scylla vowed to take the first chance she got to take whatever revenge she could on Circe.
When Odysseus left Circe’s island Scylla attacked his ship because the witch had loved the mortal man. Scylla struck out at Odysseus in an attempt to hurt the woman who had cursed her.
As both a goddess and a figure of legend, Circe attracted worshippers in the ancient Greek world.
She was credited with inventing many types of magic. Those who believed that spells could be cast through herbalism and potions, in particular, sought her inspiration in their own work.
Circe was often associated with, and sometimes conflated with, Hecate. The goddess of magic and witchcraft was worshipped by many of the same people who found inspiration in the character of Circe.
Some attempts to rationalize the character claimed that Circe had not performed magic, but had been skilled with healing herbs and poisons.
While her niece Medea was seen as a witch who typically used her abilities for evil, Circe was believed by her followers to be a more benevolent character.
She had used her magic to hurt people when she believed she was threatened, but as soon as it was safe she not only reversed her spell but also helped the men of Odysseus’s crew.
Unlike later writers who viewed her as a dangerous sorcerous, worshipers of Circe saw her as a helpful and knowledgeable guide.
In conclusion, Circe was a goddess in Greek mythology who is remembered most for her use of magic.
He most famous story is her role in the Odyssey. She initially turns the crewmen of Odysseus’s ship into pigs, but Hermes gives the hero the key to avoiding her magic Circe because his lover and one of his greatest allies.
Without the knowledge and advice of Circe, it’s entirely possible Odysseus would not have survived his treacherous journey.
Ultimately, however, his affair with Circe may have led to his downfall. Various legends of Odysseus’s death all include the involvement of Circe and one of their sons together, Telegonus.
She was involved in other myths as well. She was the aunt of Medea who refused to shelter the Argonauts after Medea and Jason committed a murder, and her jealousy may have led to the creation of the horrific monster Scylla.
Writers in ancient Gree and afterwards tried to moralize the tale of Circe. They interpreted her magic as a warning against excess, be it in gluttony or lust.
Circe was often seen as a femme fatale or a dangerous temptress, but in Homer’s original text she is a genuinely helpful figure. Many Greeks agreed, and Circe was worshipped as a goddess of magic.